A Terrifying Honesty

V. S. Naipaul is certainly no liberal—and herein lies his importance

A group of eminent American writers appointed by the Librarian of Congress—including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Lowell—awarded the 1948 Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, for The Pisan Cantos. Because Pound had spent the war broadcasting propaganda for Mussolini, and was at the time in a mental hospital, having been judged unfit to stand trial for treason, the award not surprisingly caused a storm of protest, even though the judges insisted that they had taken as their guiding principle only "that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest," and denied that their decision had any political significance. Dwight Macdonald disagreed: the award was political, not to say "the brightest political act in a dark period," precisely because the judges had rebuked totalitarianism, whose worst horror is that it "reduces the individual to one aspect, the political ... and I think we can take some pride as Americans in having as yet preserved a society free and 'open' enough for it to happen."

That came to my mind in October, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to V. S. Naipaul. Like the Bollingen judges, the Swedish prize committee would have liked it to be known that their award was nonpolitical; and some critics praised them for precisely that, in a back-handed way. Too often it has felt as though extra-literary factors weighed with the Nobel, if only in the form of a geographical balancing act (last year it was Eastern Europe, this year it must be Latin America). In the shadow of September 11, the award to Naipaul seemed, as it were, willfully politically incorrect. As Philip Hensher wrote in the course of a subtle encomium, "If ever there was a moment when external considerations might have discouraged the Nobel committee from rewarding the author of Among the Believers, that magnificently disdainful journey through Islam, this is it."

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Maybe so. And yet I believe that this Nobel Prize does indeed have a political significance, and is even, in its way, a bright political act in a dark period. "As is well known," Macdonald wrote, "Pound's situation is disreputable and hopeless to a dramatic degree." As is well known, Naipaul's reputation is checkered and increasingly uneasy. He has been called a reactionary and an Islamophobe; Derek Walcott has accused him, more in sorrow than in anger, of racism; Edward W. Said has accused him, more in anger than in sorrow, of intellectual neo-colonialism. Rather than nervously ignoring these charges, I should like to address them head on, and to say that Naipaul is a political figure—indeed, a profoundly important one.

Of course, he is in the first place a great imaginative writer, as certainly as we can ever know that of a contemporary. There is a case for saying that all literary prizes are foolishness (except when you win one, as more than one writer has observed), and that the only judgment that matters, apart from the commercial judgment of the market, is the critical judgment of the happy few who know how to read. And this prize has an awfully patchy record: is there anyone alive, even among French Department Ph.D.s, who has read Sully Prudhomme, the winner of the first Nobel in literature? Or who can tell us much about Karl Adolp Gjellerup, awarded the 1917 prize "for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals"?

This time they got it right. Naipaul is a magnificent novelist, who would have deserved the prize if he had written nothing apart from A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), A Bend in the River (1979), and The Enigma of Arrival (1987). A very long disquisition could be written on his achievement in fiction, from the comedic brilliance of the early works set in his native Trinidad to the growing formal mastery displayed by his later novels, demonstrating a fecundity, an originality, and an extraordinary technical daring that have been insufficiently recognized, partly because Naipaul is (to use what for academic critics is a damning word) so readable. His work exemplifies the art that conceals art, and he is one of the greatest living craftsmen of English prose, perhaps the very greatest—something that was spotted early on. "Mr Naipaul is an 'East' Indian Trinidadian with an exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his British contemporaries," Evelyn Waugh wrote of The Middle Passage in 1962.

But Naipaul is more than merely a great stylist and storyteller. Waugh also said that every writer must at some stage in his life decide whether he is going to be an aesthete or a prophet. He meant that too many gifted writers set themselves up as purveyors of an overt message, political, moral, sexual as it might be, with gravely deleterious results; examples over the past century are too many and obvious to list. Naipaul is both: a true aesthete and a true prophet. Or, it might be better to say, a true seer, not less so—maybe all the more so—for being such an unpopular one.

To take the charges on the rap sheet: Walcott has said that Naipaul "does not like Negroes," and I don't think that this can be easily dismissed. Naipaul's family origins lie in the great nineteenth-century diaspora from Gangetic India, which distributed Indians around the British Empire—to Natal and Fiji, Kenya and Guyana, Malaya and Trinidad—as indentured laborers. There has been recurrent social and political tension between Trinidad's two largest communities, the Indian and the black, or Afro-Caribbean. Naipaul grew up with one community calling the other "niggers" and being called "coolies" in return, and he is infected by an ancestral communal resentment such as can be found among even educated Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, or enlightened Israelis and Palestinians.

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